Development and aminergic neuromodulation of a spinal locomotor network controlling swimming in Xenopus larvae

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1998 Nov 16;860:318-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1998.tb09059.x.


In this article we review our research on the development and intrinsic neuromodulation of a spinal network controlling locomotion in a simple vertebrate. Swimming in hatchling Xenopus embryos is generated by a restricted network of well-characterized spinal neurons. This network produces a stereotyped motor pattern which, like real swimming, involves rhythmic activity that alternates across the body and progresses rostrocaudally with a brief delay between muscle segments. The stereotypy results from motoneurons discharging a single impulse in each cycle; because all motoneurons appear to behave similarly there is little scope for altering the output to the myotomes from one cycle to the next. Just one day later, however, Xenopus larvae generate a more complex and flexible motor pattern in which motoneurons can discharge a variable number of impulses which contribute to ventral root bursts in each cycle. This maturation of swimming is due, in part, to the influence of serotonin released from brain-stem raphespinal interneurons whose axonal projections innervate the cord early in larval life. Larval swimming is differentially modulated by both serotonin and by noradrenaline: serotonin leads to relatively fast, intense swimming whereas noradrenaline favors slower, weaker activity. Thus, these two biogenic amines select opposite extremes from the spectrum of possible output patterns that the swimming network can produce. Our studies on the cellular and synaptic effects of the amines indicate that they can control the strength of reciprocal glycinergic inhibition in the spinal cord. Serotonin and noradrenaline act presynaptically on the terminals of glycinergic commissural interneurons to weaken and strengthen, respectively, crossed glycinergic inhibition during swimming. As a result, serotonin reduces and noradrenaline increases interburst intervals. The membrane properties of spinal neurons are also affected by the amines. In particular, serotonin can induce intrinsic oscillatory membrane properties in the presence of NMDA. These depolarizations are slow compared to the cycle periods during swimming and so may contribute to enhancement of swimming over several consecutive cycles of activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biogenic Amines / physiology*
  • Larva / chemistry
  • Larva / cytology
  • Larva / physiology
  • Motor Neurons / chemistry
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology*
  • Spinal Cord / cytology*
  • Spinal Cord / growth & development
  • Spinal Cord / physiology*
  • Swimming / physiology*
  • Xenopus


  • Biogenic Amines
  • Neurotransmitter Agents